Tipping the balance

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Despite the growing case for industry and commerce to offer some form offlexible working, there remain a number of barriers to individual employersimplementing a policy successfully. Caroline Horn reports on how these barrierscan be overcomeThe Government’s campaign to promote a better work-home balance foremployees suggests that a sea change could be under way in how flexible workingpractices are viewed. While there are strong business arguments for theadoption of flexible working practices, all the time that it is perceivedpurely as a tool for working mothers, or as an option for those who do not taketheir career seriously, its wider adoption won’t happen. The new governmentinitiative, which includes research on flexible working practices, could helpto change that perception.There are many good reasons why employers should be prepared to offerflexible working practices. Nigel Crouch, an industrialist working with the DTIInnovations Unit, says, “There are potentially massive benefits fromintroducing flexible working. If you look at the skills shortages in the marketnow, as an employer you are going to be much more attractive if you can showyou can provide a work/life balance for your employers. So flexible working canhelp to attract new staff, as well as with the retention of existingstaff.”A recent report by John Knell at the Industrial Society and Carol Savage atthe Resource Connection – Flexible working and male professionals: Can’tchange, won’t change? – showed that most of the respondents, 84 per cent,believe that organisations should offer flexible working. However, the reportalso suggests that they believe that flexibility at work is a route to careerdeath.There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that acceptance of flexibleworking is one thing, but actual adoption is a very different issue. CharlieMonkcom, communications manager at New Ways to Work, an organisation which aimsto encourage employers to develop more work-life balance schemes, says, “Alot of demand is latent, which is why the government initiative is soimportant.”There are a lot of men who would like to reorganise their working dayand feel they can’t even ask because the workplace is so resistant to theseideas. It’s a taboo area.”There are a number of barriers to the successful implementation of flexibleworking practices in individual companies. Crouch says, “One of thegreatest barriers to the introduction of flexible working practices is the lackof trust between colleagues. While people seem to think that flexible workingis a great idea, a high proportion think that people will abuse it.” Thisis again borne out in the Can’t Change, Won’t Change report, in which 66 percent of the sample questioned suggested that flexibility would be open toabuse. It was the major problem identified by the sample respondents tooffering flexible working.There are other problems, too, says Crouch. “In the UK, we are veryinput driven rather than output driven and you have to be seen to be at work.People worry that if you are not there quite as much, an employer will loseconfidence in you.”Even where flexible working policies do exist, often they are based onimplicit gender stereotyping – the assumption that it is more acceptable forwomen to work flexible hours than men. Again, the report highlights that manymen share this view. The Industrial Society recently announced it would rejectthe term “family-friendly”, believing it gives the impression it isonly of concern to women with young children (Personnel Today, 18 January,2000).John Knell, head of research at the Industrial Society, says, “Themessage is that there is a good business case for offering flexible workingpractices, and we know that there is growing demand for it from employees, butthat they don’t feel that they have the support from the top or the skills toimplement it.”Crouch, a strong advocate of Partnership with People programmes, suggeststhat the company culture that PwP programmes generate could help in theadoption of flexible practices. “If you have the right culture of listeningto people’s opinions, honesty and trust, it will be the greatest way toovercome the distrust among colleagues,” he says. “Equally,Partnerships with People focuses on doing what you do in the most efficientway, so if you are not at your station continuously, it is still recognisedthat the work is being done efficiently.”The adoption of flexible working practices will often require a fundamentalshift in company culture. As Crouch points out, this could be the first step inmuch wider changes in corporate attitudes. And it requires senior management toactively support the change. As the report states: “While individuals in senior positions continueto work very long hours and choose not to personally pursue, or implement,flexible work options, it will remain much harder in reality for flexibleworkers to reach senior management positions, unless they work to the same paceas their colleagues.”It is also essential to be sure what is flexible working is about. Crouchsees the definition of flexible practices as one of the key problems in termsof its implementation. “Everyone who talks about it says it’s a good ideabut in reality, there are probably misconceptions about what it means,” hesays. “There is a strong onus on management to make that clear.Flexibility does not mean part time work but full time work done otherways.” The Industrial Society and The Resource Connection define flexible workingas “a choice driven by an employee’s circumstances, which meets theemployer’s business need”. In other words, “the pursuit offlexibility should not be driven solely by the operational imperatives ofemployers.”However, the demands of the employer still need to be met and flexibleworking demands rigorous planning to ensure they are met outside the standardnine to five hours. Knell comments: “It is very difficult to dabble inflexible working practices if you want to do it properly. It affects a wholerange of issues including rewards, communication processes, work flow, andthere are implications for how you manage teams. So you have to consider howyou manage flexibility as an organisation, before you can think aboutimplementing it piecemeal.”Consultant Ceridian Performance Partners specialises in helpingorganisations to develop strategies that will better balance life and workcommitments among their workforce. Flexible working practices forms part ofthat. Managing director Penny de Valk says, “Flexible working looks reallyeasy – it could be seen as a kind of job share. Then companies try to implementa policy and start to fall down on who is eligible for what. It is better forcompanies to have a broad menu of options but they need to have a rigorousimplementation policy.”She says that it is rare for companies to have no flexible working policies– often they form part of an equal opportunities package, or a diversityprogramme. But she adds, “The companies we see tend to have greatpolicies, but no practice. Flexible working tends to be a marginalised processthat staff and managers are afraid to do anything about.”When a company is serious about implementing flexible working practices, thefirst question Ceridian asks is, why are they doing this? “We need toknow, where does flexible working integrate with the rest of their HRstrategy?” explains de Valk. Companies need to consider whether it isaimed at reducing staff turnover, attracting women back from maternity leave,helping to reduce high levels of stress or because they want to become anemployer of choice.”Then they need to start putting numbers to it,” says de Valk.”Training costs and workplace costs have to be weighed against the cost oflosing staff through maternity or to a more flexible employer.” Researchin the US also indicates that, in areas such as retailing, where flexibleworking can contribute to an employee’s sense of control over their workinglife, that has a positive effect on their performance, and therefore on thefirm’s profitability. The classic case study at Sears, Roebuck & Co found a5 per cent rise in staff attitude boosted sales by 0.5 per cent.Before flexible working practices are implemented, HR departments andmanagers need to be trained in how best to do so. “Managers fear doing itbecause they fear setting a precedent,” says de Valk. “It isimportant to design a rigorous process that everyone has to go through, toemphasise that it’s not an entitlement but the result of transparent discussionbetween an individual and a company’s needs. Employees need to show that thisis how it can work so that the work will get done, but in a different way. Thatway, they show that they are still motivated, but want to do their workdifferently.” Having a flexible working policy in place also means that anemployee is not driven to standing outside the manager’s door because of direpersonal problems, which have to be aired.New Ways to Work provides advice for individuals on how to best approachtheir employers on this issue, as well as offering training consultancy forcorporates. Monkcom says, “Evidence from a number of surveys suggests thatpeople would be willing to trade some of their income for time, at certainperiods of their life.”The organisation provides employees with information such as case studies,or advice on what competitors are doing. “The fundamental principle weoperate is that both employers and employees can gain from flexiblepractices.” It does, however, warn individuals to expect resistance and beprepared to negotiate.Having a flexible policy in place takes the issue away from the reason forchanging working practices, to how the work will get done, says de Valk.”An employee will be able to say, these are the details of how it willimpact on my work, this is how we will be able to judge if it’s working or not,and this is a suggested trial period. It gives managers a sense of comfort thatthe work can be done. And instead of coming with problems to your manager andhaving to feel grateful for changes to your hours, it puts two adults on anequal footing.”At this stage, the reason for employees requesting changes to their workingrequirements remains caring commitments, particularly women with youngchildren, says Monkcom. “But that has changed in the past few years. Thereare more people taking training and further education courses, for example, andothers who simply do not want the traditional idea of a five-day week. Tenyears ago, the idea of a chief executive working part-time, or job-sharing,would have been unthinkable but there are increasing examples of that.”Ceridian agrees that there is growing interest in the adoption of flexibleworking practices. De Valk comments: “Over the past 18 months there hasbeen more interest in work-life balance, especially around flexible workingbecause the labour market has tightened so employers want to positionthemselves as an employer of choice. It is also considered as best practice fora corporate to be able to offer a range of working options.”She adds, “The Government initiative will hopefully raise the profileof the whole issue and show the way forward in thinking about it differently.It is a buzzword but there is confusion about how to do it and how to do itwell.”It is difficult to get exact figures on how many employees are currentlyworking flexibly. Knell comments: “Flexible working is often lumped inwith reduced hours working, and that is viewed as part-time working. Part-timeworking is not synonymous with flexible working.” He feels the extent of change is probably ahead of the official statistics,which pick up both self-employed and part time workers. “Self-employedfigures remain fairly static but there might be a number of people working foremployers full-time but working two days from home, or doing 30 hours over twodays,” says Knell.”We also know that there is huge growth in out-sourcing of coreactivities, which suggests that there is more growth in flexible working ascompanies providing sub-contracted resources often have to offer moreflexibility.”Increasingly, some employers – particularly those in the service sector –have to offer flexible working because they are based on 24-hour operation.”There is a debate about the trend towards a 24-hour society, especiallyin the service sector. Some companies are phone-based, offering 24-hour banking,or retail, or advice/guidance. They need to cover unsociable hours andtherefore to work on a flexible basis,” adds Knell.Few, though, want to see flexible working practices confined to specificsectors. De Valk suggests that all employers will come under increasingpressure to implement some form of flexible practice: “The employers weare talking to are looking at three to four year projections regarding wherethey need to be and a number are building in flexible working practices,”she says. “The change will happen over the next few years, partly becauseof the tight labour market but also because people will simply not be preparedto do more and more, and to continue paying high family costs.” Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article Tipping the balanceOn 14 Mar 2000 in Personnel Todaylast_img

Posts Tagged with…

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *